Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Young Birder's Guide

Thursday, January 10, 2008
That's me in the yellow shirt in April of 1970 only a few months after seeing my spark bird.
Dad (BT, jr.) is in the middle and brother Andy is on the right.

I saw my spark bird in November of 1969, when I was 7 years old. It was a snowy owl that flew into a tree in our front yard in Pella, Iowa. I keyed the bird out in my mom's Chester A. Reed Bird Guide.
Until the mid-1930s, millions of households relied upon the Reed Guide for bird identification. In 1934, Roger Peterson changed all that with the publication of his revolutionary Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern North America.

The Reed Guide was basic by today's field guide standards, but it served my purpose. I keyed out the snowy owl—there was no doubt about it.

The snowy owl page from the Chester A. Reed Guide.

Then I noticed all the other birds in the guide! And I set out in the woods behind our house to find some of the other species depicted in the Reed Guide. Little did I know that all the bobolinks and painted buntings and indigo buntings and eastern kingbirds were far to the south of Iowa in November. So I set about identifying the cardinals and tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos in the evergreen windbreak and the house sparrows in our barn.

We moved to Ohio in 1971, and my mom once again gave my interest in birds a boost. She joined a local bird club made up mostly of women, who were happy to have my brother Andy and me along one Friday a month. These gals went birding somewhere every week! And the leader Pat Murphy, wrote about their trips and sightings in our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. Every club member had a nickname (perhaps to avoid putting their real names in the paper—birding was not yet socially acceptable). My mom was The Catbird—a name which fits her chatty, high-energy nature, and which has stuck to her to this day.

During these early years of bird watching, the seeds of what would eventually become Bird Watcher's Digest were planted. It would be another seven years before we'd start the magazine in our living room, but during each of those years we became more interested in birds.

As a kid, I would have LOVED to have had a basic field guide that was somewhere between the Reed Guide and the Peterson or Golden Guides. Those latter guides were wonderful, but they were far too all-inclusive for me. I was constantly identifying birds only to find out that they were nowhere near our area. Of course this was in my youth, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I started working on the concept of a field guide for young birders. I wanted it to be welcome mat for all those 8 to 12 year olds out there who are sort of interested in birds, but who are not yet bitten by the bird watching bug. My goal was to create a guide that would be a starting place for them. A book they'd LIKE READING as well as using to ID birds. So we knew we'd need to include some puke, some guts, some screaming, a few gross-outs, and so on, and, baby this book's got 'em!

I made some initial notes and started talking to the kids in Phoebe's elementary school class about it. The kids and their teachers and I worked on the guide for almost three years! We studied how books are created from idea to proposal to manuscript to layouts to final galleys. In a eureka moment, we realized with that in being written, printed, shipped, and distributed, the book would actually travel around the world!

The kids helped me with the design of The Young Birder's Guide, they helped me write some of the text. We chose many photographs together. We selected page layout preferences. We worked on tweaking the cover design. I must have gone in to Phoebe's fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes more than a dozen times in all to work with her classmates on the book.

Now it's all done and being printed and we CAN'T WAIT to see it. I've seen a bound galley and it looks and feels just like I hoped it would. It's narrow and tall—easy to use for smaller hands and easily stuffed in a pocket or backpack. The pages are packed with color—one species per page with photographs as illustrations.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin is debuting the book at this weekend's birding industry trade show, BirdWatch America in Atlanta. I'm heading down to give a talk about getting kids into birding and, I have to admit, I'm completely excited about the launch of this book.

The kids at Phoebe and Liam's school are excited, too. Anytime they see me they ask about the book and when it's going to be here. It does seem like a long time coming. But that's publishing for you.

Of all the books I've been involved in as author, editor, project manager, or idea-monger, this is the one that is closest to my heart. Why? Because I want my own kids (fingers crossed) to know the joy of watching birds.
Our kids are good sports about their crazy birding parents. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And because I believe that the future of this planet is in their hands. We need them to know about birds and nature so they understand the value of the natural world. And the Playstation or the Wii is not going to teach them the difference between the song of an American robin and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

But this book just might accomplish that. The good folks at birdJam have created a playlist of 160 of the 200 species in the book. Kids can augment their copy of The Young Birder's Guide with the songs and images on this optional digital download.

Too bad it's going to be several weeks yet before we see actual copies, shipped express from the printer overseas.

I won't really feel the book is real until I walk into Phoebe's class with a box full of copies for all the kids who helped with the project. THAT'S going to be awesome!

Phoebe's fourth-grade class outside, posing with imaginary binoculars.

And here is a glimpse at the cover. I've got more to say about this book, but will save that for later. Right now I've got to finish writing my talk about getting kids interested in birds!

In case you're curious about it, the on-sale date for this book is sometime in mid-to-late April. I'll certainly keep y'all posted on that.


On January 11, 2008 at 6:40 AM Jayne said...

What a labor of love Bill! People like you and Julie have done for birding what Tiger Woods did for golf. Now, it's going to be even more cool with this wonderful guide. Congratulations!! Can't wait to see it come out.

On January 11, 2008 at 11:59 AM Rondeau Ric said...

Excellent Bill! What a great idea.
I have a great-nephew who is 10 and interested in birds. We have sent him a number of field guides.
I'm going to want a signed copu for him.
Congratulaions buddy.


On January 11, 2008 at 12:09 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

Do you think RR meant "a signed coypu?" Kind of a tall order, but he's a good friend.

Go ahead. Google "coypu."

On January 11, 2008 at 12:37 PM Heron said...

Congratulations Bill ! A gift to the future of birding, for children and encouraging their interest in the environment. Kudos to you and your many young assistants.

And will the coypu be photographed, stuffed, or on the hoof ? ;)

On January 11, 2008 at 12:40 PM Jeff Gyr said...

Congratulations, dude! Hope all is going well at BirdWatch America.

And I definitely want a signed coypu...


On January 11, 2008 at 1:05 PM Trixie said...

Whoo hoot! I know where one coypu will find a home.

On January 11, 2008 at 3:11 PM dguzman said...

Wow, Bill! This looks great! I'm definitely going to need a copy for The Kid, who's just getting into birding.

On January 11, 2008 at 3:59 PM Brooke said...

Well done, BOTB! How cool is that?!! I need more tools to 'hook' the grandkids. So, the first question that came to mind long will we have to wait for, "Birds of Western North America"?
btw -- I've still got my 'Reed Guide' too.
I wrote a letter to Roger Tory Petersen when I was 7, and he wrote me back! Some day soon, seven-year-old's will be writing to thank you. We'll be watching for the book. You're an inspiration, and I THANK YOU.

On January 11, 2008 at 4:31 PM Mary said...

Bill, I loved this post! I acquired my grandmother's (1888-1989) Chester Reed Bird Guide, and found that the apple didn't fall far from the tree - she had noted the sighting date of each bird she saw on it's page starting in 1913 (Flicker). She also gave me my first guide, An Introduction to Birds by John Kieran, Illustrated by Don Eckelberry. I'll be buying a number of your guides for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade birding club I sponsor at the school where I'm the librarian. Can't wait! Thanks.

On January 11, 2008 at 5:33 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Wow! Thanks all the positive comments and references to coypu.

I'll happily sign all of your coypus--think a waterproof Sharpie will work?

On January 11, 2008 at 5:58 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

The best way is to shave your signature in the coypu. I'll hold it down.

On January 11, 2008 at 6:10 PM mrguildoo said...

Great idea, Bill. As a middle school teacher, I'm excited about this. We just read the novel Hoot, by Carl Hiassen, and I think it may have gotten a "spark" into some of the kids who normally wouldn't have looked twice at a bird.
I'll have to reccommend this book to them as well!

On January 11, 2008 at 6:25 PM mon@rch said...

I want a copy, I want a copy! Bill can't wait till the final product is on the book shelve! I would also love to get a signed copy by both you and your helper (Phoebe)!

On January 11, 2008 at 6:57 PM KatDoc said...

What the hell is a "coypu"?

Off to Wikipedia ...

~Kathi, who, BTW, thinks this book is a terrific idea

On January 11, 2008 at 7:14 PM KatDoc said...


A nutria.

Why didn't you say so?


On January 12, 2008 at 12:27 AM Mary C said...

This is great, Bill. I also hope it won't be too long before you put out a Western edition.

On January 13, 2008 at 9:11 PM Mary said...

Yes, a labor of love. I'll be looking for your new book, Bill. I'm not young, but I think I'll really enjoy it.

On January 14, 2008 at 11:28 AM Kyle said...

BT3: I'm a pretty new reader of your BotB blog -- been a regular reader of Zick's blog for ages, and finally clicked on over to see what her other half had to say.

What a wonderful project this book must have been! Especially working with the kids to develope it.

I've seen enough "coypu" (we grew up just calling them "neuter rats") down here around the Texas Gulf Coast that I'll pass on the autographed rodent. Congrats on the new book.

One question tho -- I'm assuming your "Eastern US" isn't going to be quite as handy down here in Texas. Any suggestions for a good starter field guide for new Texas / Gulf Coast bird enthusiasts? I'm trying to get my own kids (9 and 6) more interested in outdoor activities (beyond the soccer fields) and would love to get them interested in birding.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

On January 16, 2008 at 12:24 PM Patrick Belardo said...

Wow, how did I miss this post earlier? What an awesome idea and congrats!!! I just bought my future nephew a collection of the Peterson First Guides. I don't love the birding guide from that series much, but it's a start. This could be my next gift for him.

On January 16, 2008 at 10:39 PM The Zen Birdfeeder said...

We are looking forward to getting your new book in the expanded Nature Discovery section of our store. In talking to your mom about it, she sure was proud of you!
It was a pleasure to finally get to meet you!

On January 18, 2008 at 3:16 PM T.R. said...

If I had gotten my little mitts on that book 35 years ago I would not be in my first year of birding.

It will be a great tool for me to use with my nephews in my personal battle against their nature deficient disorder. Planting these seeds, one kid at a time, seems the best investment for the compassionate stewardship our planet needs. Thank you!